Scores of street children in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, were, on May 27, treated to a party.
The organiser, Jessica Charles, said this was meant to give the children a sense of belonging during the Children’s Day celebration in Nigeria.
Ms Charles is a healthcare professional in Akwa Ibom.
By 10 a.m., the children, one after the other, started arriving at the venue of the party – a recreational park in Ewet Housing Estate, a foremost residential estate in Uyo.
They looked unkempt, hungry, and tired. And scared – apparently not really sure why they were invited to a party.
Some of them looked sickly.
One of the street children, Jeremiah Okon, about five days before the party, was assigned the task of talking to others and getting them to attend the event.
The 17-year-old boy was given the task because he appeared cool-headed and much more promising than the others, Ms Charles said.
The children’s hangout at night in Uyo is mainly along ‘Maitama’, the ever busy entrance to the Ewet Housing Estate or any other busy locations where they can beg for money or food from the rich.
In the daytime, the children, some of them as young as eight years old, gather mostly at major road intersections in the city where they make little earnings washing car windshields.
There were 23 of them, at least, at the party.
By the time the children finished eating what was served to them – jollof rice and pastries and some non-alcohol beverages – their faces lit up, and they were now talking freely with Ms Charles and others.
They danced happily and took part in a dance competition.
Emmanuel Isaiah, 13, won the competition and got a N2,000 prize money from Ms Charles.
“I’ll use the money to buy food,” said Emmanuel, who sleeps at a bus stop at night, with some other street children.
Emmanuel, from Itam in Itu Local Government Area of Akwa Ibom State, said he has never met the man who is his father.
He said he dropped out of school while in primary four and would like to go back to school if he has a home and food to eat.
Emmanuel, like the other children, engages in washing car windshields for a daily earning of N500 (about a dollar) in the afternoon, then he resorts to begging by nightfall.
There were other children like the 14-year-old Godswill Ernest, from Itiam Etoi in Uyo, who said he only saw a photograph of a man said to be his father, shown to him by his grandmother.
There was Etemkere George, 11, from Itiam Etoi too, who said he had not seen his father before, and that his mother abandoned him and ran away.
There was eight-year-old Gideon, the youngest among them. He looked weak, lonely, and distrustful.
Their stories were similar – pushed into the street either because of the effects of being from a broken home or witchcraft labelling. There are others who run to the street because of abuse at home or for other reasons.
Dumbi Onyeobi, a pastor with His Pleasure House Christian Assembly, Uyo, told the children not to see themselves as being abandoned, despite their rough experiences in life.
Mr Onyeobi, accompanied to the party by his wife, Sarah, urged the children to stay off drugs and crimes, and bad gangs.
“If you do good, God will stand with you,” the pastor said to them.
He told them about a Biblical figure, Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his own brothers, how he lived a godly life, overcame all the odds in life and was eventually appointed prime minister in Egypt.
“Joseph in the Bible was doing good to people who did evil to him.
“For doing good, he went to prison. In the prison, he was still doing good. He was in the prison, but did not behave like other prisoners.
“The worst thing you could do to yourself is to be like the person whom you hate,” the pastor said to the children.
The children, on Mr Onyeobi’s prompting, lifted up their hands and pledged to live a good life even on the street.
The pastor and his wife prayed for them.
Ms Charles also spoke to the children. She told them there was still hope for a better future for them. She said she would talk to people out there who could help them go to school or acquire vocational skills.
“I am worried about the growing number of street children in Uyo,” Ms Charles told PREMIUM TIMES, at the end of the children’s party.
“We can’t wait for the government to do everything. If everyone contributes his quota to solving whatever problem we see in our society, Nigeria would become a better place. Whatever I am doing here is my modest contribution to solving societal problems, the aim is to get these kids off the street.
“Besides the fact that these kids are part of humanity and they deserve our love and care, there’s a high possibility they could get into drugs, crimes and readily become hoodlums and the unknown gunmen tomorrow,” she said.
For the May 27 party, Ms Charles used her money, plus the support from a few friends, to organise it. But it would, however, require more than that if any meaningful help is to be given to the children, she said.
“They need a home, they need food, they need clothing. I wish God can just touch people out there to begin to think of how they can help these kids. Some of the kids are not that bad, just a touch of human kindness can do the magic in them,” she added.
At the end of the party, Ms Charles gave the children N500 each as their “feeding money for another day”.
Home for the kids?
Jeremiah, the kid who was assigned the task of bringing the other kids to the party, took PREMIUM TIMES to a place they called home before, along Oron Road in Uyo.
A few of the kids, about 10 of them, were brought into the one-room apartment by the pastor, Mr Onyeobi and his wife, whose church – His Pleasure House Christian Assembly – was also in the same compound.
That was before the owner of the property gave the church quit notice in November.
The kids, who took shelter in the room, later grew in number, beyond what the pastor and his wife could cater for.
Mr Onyeobi told this newspaper that they were able to reunite some of the kids with their parents.
His Pleasure House Christian Assembly has since moved to a new location. But the new landlord does not permit people to sleep inside the church at night, the pastor said.
When this reporter visited the compound where the kids were chased away the landlord had merged the hall that previously housed the church with the room the children stayed – it is now a three-bedroom apartment, with a sitting room, a kitchen, and two toilets.
The apartment, still under renovation, goes for N350,000 as yearly rent, said the owner, Isaiah Nyong.
Mr Nyong reluctantly agreed the children could come back to the apartment on the condition that their number must be manageable and that an adult must be around to oversee them and control their activities.
But neither Ms Charles nor His Pleasure House Christian Assembly has such an amount of money to pay for the apartment now.
Jeremiah, after he and the others were chased out of the apartment, was taken into a house in Uyo by a family who hired him to look after a man with mental illness. He was paid N3,000 monthly as against the N4,000 they had promised him, the boy said.
“They treated me somehow, and they are still owing me one month’s salary,” he said with a grimace.
‘I want to be a computer engineer’’
During Ms Charles’ party for them, the children’s biodata was collected. They were also asked about the circumstances that pushed them into the street and what they would probably want to do, between going to school and acquiring vocational skills.
“I want to be a computer engineer,” Jeremiah, an orphan, told one of the women who handled the documentation.
“Okay, I would like to do fashion designing,” he said again, innocently, to the woman when she told him he would have to go through secondary school and university before he could become a computer engineer.
Jeremiah dreams of a better future.
A fellow street kid, David, 16, is currently in JSS2 at the same school. There are other street children who also attend the school.
When school closes by 2 p.m., David hurries to a supermarket in the city to help pack trash in exchange for tokens from the supermarket owner.
“I want a part-time job,” Jeremiah told PREMIUM TIMES on Monday. “Anything I can do to earn money – maybe N10,000 at the end of every month.”
Even though their school is tuition-free, Jeremiah and David frequently need money to buy work-books, foolscap papers, or even for their haircut. This is besides the need for their feeding – the boys sometimes go for days without a good meal.
Both kids do not even have a school desk, so they have to either stand or sit on the floor during classes.
The two of them are currently squatting in a one-room apartment that belongs to a female member of His Pleasure House Ministries. Usually, eight people, including the woman’s children, are cramped in the room at night, PREMIUM TIMES learnt.
At his school on Wednesday, Jeremiah was gripped with shyness as he posed for a PREMIUM TIMES’ reporter to take photograph of him at the school’s assembly ground – where the school principal told the students they would not be coming to school on Thursday and Friday because of a mid-term holiday declared by the Akwa Ibom State Government.
Standing next to him was 18-year-old Daniel Sunday, another street kid, who is in the same school.
After the announcement at the assembly ground, Jeremiah pulled out some notebooks from his school bag and showed them to the reporter.
One of the notebooks is for Basic Science, one of the subjects he is taught in school. Inside the notebook, he scribbled some notes on “the depletion of ozone layer,” one of the topics under the subject.
“You had breakfast today?” the reporter asked him.
“No, I haven’t.
“I don’t like eating in the morning, so I won’t sleep in class,” he said with a smile.
As Jeremiah and Daniel walked away, towards the Uyo High School gate, their faded school uniform, the patches on them tell a story of their struggles and determination.
While the mid-term holiday lasts, Jeremiah, Daniel and the other kids would definitely be searching for where to beg for money or do menial jobs to survive.
‘Sorry, the government can’t help!’
At the children welfare department of the Akwa Ibom State Government, an official told this reporter that there was nothing the government could do to help the likes of Jeremiah because of age limitation.
“In Akwa Ibom State Child Rights Law, you are no longer considered a child once you are above 16 years,” the official said.
He said the government has been clearing the streets of homeless children, but that new sets of kids keep emerging.
“We have children’s homes, but we can’t pack the new ones from the street and shelter them in a facility where the reformed ones are already, so that the new ones won’t corrupt them,” he said.
A permanent secretary in the Federal Ministry of Education, Adamu Hussaini, said in 2017 that Nigeria has the “largest number” of out-of-school children in the world, and that street children were among the most affected groups.
For Jeremiah and the rest, the struggle continues – the street remains their home, their comfort, while they continually seek help from kind-hearted people like Ms Charles and Mr Onyeobi and His Pleasure House Christian Assembly.
A piece of good news: Jeremiah is about to hit a milestone in school, he has just received N2,500 from Ms Charles to process the registration for his Junior Secondary Certificate Examination, which comes up in a few weeks.
“Sir, I hope we’ll see you again in church?” The boy said happily to this reporter on the phone, on Friday.
He was referring to a new weekly fellowship organised every Sunday by 4 p.m. at His Pleasure House Christian Assembly for him and other street children who participated in the May 27 party.
Support PREMIUM TIMES' journalism of integrity and credibility
Good journalism costs a lot of money. Yet only good journalism can ensure the possibility of a good society, an accountable democracy, and a transparent government.
For continued free access to the best investigative journalism in the country we ask you to consider making a modest support to this noble endeavour.
By contributing to PREMIUM TIMES, you are helping to sustain a journalism of relevance and ensuring it remains free and available to all.
TEXT AD: To advertise here . Call Willie +2347088095401...